At Home with... Ray Pérez
An interview by Roberto Ernesto Gyemant
May 2005, Caracas, Venezuela.
A gunslinger. Thats what Ray Pérez looks like. Tall, thin and trigueño*, with a narrow waist, all the better for holding six shooters. Squinty eyes and the sideways smile of the confident marksman - one who can sight-read music. On some of his roughly 35 album covers he even wears a cowboy hat typical of the Venezuelan llaneros. Then you hear his nickname is El Loco Ray.
His bands he conceived of, composed, arranged, played piano and sang for Los Dementes, Los Calvos and Los Kenya, among others were the voice of the youth of Caracas in 1967, Caracas en la Cuarentona, the year of the Cuatricentennial (400 years) of its founding. The same youth that Richie Ray (Las Caraqueñas), Ray Barretto (A Maracaibo and No Olvida a Caracas) and Pete Rodriguez (Arranca en Fa) celebrated in songs from the same period.
Los Dementes were the voice of the gente del este, the people of the working class barrios of San Agustin, La Pastora, and the infamously revolutionary and salsa-crazy 23 de Enero. The songs on their debut LP, which translates as World Alert! The Crazy Men Have Arrived often began with whistling, horn honking, and the sounds of a class full of loco kids, exploding quickly into raw and exciting descargas. Lightning fast timbales are heard as trombones come on like the horns of an eighteen-wheeler. Rays montunos, insistent and full of feeling, turn on a dime into swinging boogaloo breakdowns, serving notice to country-club groups like the massive Billos Caracas Boys: the inmates have taken over the asylum.
Ray has passionate followers in Europe, notably in Italy, Germany, France and Spain. Luis Silva, better known as Melon of Lobo y Melon, told journalist Alfredo Churion that Ray is a salsa idol in Mexico, where he still plays live on occasion. Colombia has long appreciated Rays guaguanco, and I have heard that his version of Feliz Cumpleanos is the song of choice at birthday parties in Cali and Barranquilla. But Ray has been little appreciated in the U.S, which save for maybe el Niche and Oscar tends to ignore the critical contributions of countries like Panama, Colombia and Venezuela in the history and corpus of Afro-Antillean music.
For the record, La Salsa Llego con los Dementes (1967) came out long before they were using salsa as a marketing term in Nueva York. And if you can find that original LP for sale on Ebay, expect to pay upwards of $200 for it, or for any from that period. As for original pressings of Los Calvos as a record-seller in Cartagena told me, those are MI. Mision Imposible.
Salsomanos are blessed in that Ray made use of a brilliant array of gifted soneros and singers, including the charismatic Perucho Torcat, his partner in crime, who died tragically in Boston at the age of thirty-two, the golden-throated Carlin Rodriguez, and brilliant scatman Calaven (Carlos Yanez), a singer comparable in innovation to Francisco Fellove or Amado Borcela Guapacha. Ray himself sings con un feeling muy especial on some of his most powerful songs, such as Asi Mueren los Valientes, Rio Manzanares, Emae Emae and Adios Madeira.
His percussion sections featured drum and timbal legend El Pavo Frank Hernandez, Alberto Naranjo, master of Venezuelan folkloric rhythms, Alfredo Padilla, later of La Salsa Mayor, and the great conguero Nene Quintero. If you are suffering from an overdose of salsa matancerizada, just put on one of Rays LPs. But be forewarned, as Perucho (QEPD) sings in El Trigueño Cintura:
Destrozando el piano viene
aqui El Trigueño Cintura
es mas salsa que el pescao
tiene mucha sabrosura.
La agilidad de una avispa
tiene el trigueño en sus manos
trae un coco que arrebata
que lo goza hasta el gusano.
*trigueno: brown-skinned, mestizo
Thank you for having me in your home, maestro. Its a great honor to meet you. What is your full name?
My name from baptism is Ramon Epiphanio Pérez Rivas. I was born in Barcelona, Anzoategui state, Venezuela the 25th of december, 1938. Thats the date the authorities gave me, because the birth rolls disappeared in a fire. My mother told me I was born on april 7, 1937. So I have two birthdays.
And your parents?
My papas name was Ramon Ernesto and my mama, Asuncion.
My name is Roberto Ernesto.
I am Epiphanio.
And who gave you the nickname Ray?
Well, that was in the United States, diminutive for Ramon. I remember alternating with Ray Barretto in Maracaibo in 1965, he said the age of kings (reyes) was over, but I said now is when its just beginning.
And what were your beginnings with music?
Bueno, it started in middle school, there is a photo over there, at twelve years old, with the tuba, because my father was professor of music in San Juan Bosco school. So he made a band, and I liked the trumpet, but because no one would play tuba because it was so heavy he made me play it. I touched a piano keyboard now and again but
I was on the tuba.
What did your father play?
Trumpet, piano, he was a Sunday school music teacher too.
Was your mother a musician as well?
She sang. And cooked really well.
What was the first group you were involved in?
It was a group we made with a cuatro, which is a Venezuelan tipico instrument, a drum and maracas. This was in 51, 52.
You already knew Venezuelan folkloric music.
Claro, we sang aguinaldos, in the carnavales we made comparsas where we played folkloric music, el carrite, la lancha de nueva esparta
Did your father teach you that?
Those things were learned in school and at home, but, yes, I learned them with him.
In 1952, were there radio stations in Barcelona playing popular music?
Yes, there were Radio Emisora Unida and Radio Vargas, and they played Venezuelan music, but I had a shortwave radio in the house and I listened to Radio Mayague, from Havana, Cuba. I heard all those stations, from Puerto Rico, even the BBC in London. I heard classical music
On the Cuban and Puerto Rican stations did you hear Musica Antillana?
Yes, I heard seis chorreao, the mapeye, all the kids used to listen to it. I liked Puerto Rican music, because there was a program called la guitarrista y la lora (the guitar player and the parrot). It was on at seven at night, and it gave news about crimes
(sings) Ba pa dibee dibee pa pa pa, pa na pa, din din din
they killed him on the corner of I dont know where
it talked about murders, it was a newscaster that spoke and sang. And from Havana, I heard the salsa programs, the orquestas
Like Aragon, Beny More
No, I dont remember their names. There was a septet, or a quintet, I dont remember the name, later I got a record of theirs. They had a hit with La Campana, (sings) tocame la campana campanero. Later Mangual Jr. recorded it.
The first charanga I saw, it was in Barcelona during the second world war, the ships came, and because my father was a musician, they came to my house and played
flute, violin, marimbula, bass
they didnt have a piano. Guitar, tres. I was a little boy.
What was your childhood like?
I went to school in the morning and the afternoons. At midday I went home, I had to go sell tobacco because my father had a little tobacco store. I sold the tobacco, went back home, and went to school again. At night we played with the boys on the corner. Or we could make music, I got a cuatro, they got a perolita and we played.
I left school at twelve, I left to work. I kept studying, but I had to work to help because I had eighteen brothers and sisters.
My father earned, in that era, 150 bolivars a month. Which was nothing. So I left to work, I picked coffee.
Yesterday I bought a piece of bubaloo gum that cost 150 bolivars.
Thats what my father made. Bueno, when I turned seventeen he died, and we migrated to Caracas, so I had to keep working. I got a job at the Remington brand company, adding machines. I took some courses at night school. So in the year 1958, when we had the problem with Marco Pérez Jimenez, Pérez Jimenez fell and I bought a guitar, and I started to play guitar
thats how my life as a bohemian started, I played guitar
Somebody told me you know about Ray Pérez, he learned to play piano on the adding machine keyboards at Remington.
(Laughs) No, what what it was, I put the calculators on different operations, 99, 01, like that, and each one had a rhythm
I synchronized them to make music, they would go takata takata tit tit tit
this was in the late 50s, 55-56.
You are almost twenty years old. What was Caracas like back then?
Ah bueno, it was different. You couldnt walk in the Plaza Bolivar with a t-shirt, the only ones who could were tourists and those accompanied by police, because it was out of respect for the Liberator, you had to wear a suit
also the climate was different, it was cold, Caracas was cold
for whatever government business, to go to court, you had to go in suit and tie.
What about racism?
Among the people there was never racism. Here black, white, Indian, trigueño (mestizo) are all the same. Thats something you hear nowadays, racism. There was never discrimination. The only ones who were different were the the blacks in Higuerote (Barlovento), but they are from Africa. Poor people, we all went to school together, in the same classroom, of every color, even Chinese, there were Italians, Arabs, Russians, Catalans
we went to the same school.
Were your musical groups mixed?
Yes, but black more than anything, because the blacks here dominate percussion. There are some whites like El Pavo Frank (Hernandez), who I played with, and also Alfredo Padilla
Tomorrow I am going to a concert in El Pavo Franks honor in San Agustin.
Yes, I know, I have played there, but the times I have been there make me not want to go again, because there is no respect there
one time when we got the musicians onstage to descarga, there was a shootout there, they killed someone
this was years ago.
(Ray plays the song Uvas Verdes, an uptempo number with with a little jazz descarga in it of trumpets and piano. The vocals meander over the rhythm, los pollitos dicen, pio pio pio
This is a childrens rhyme in calypso rhythm, calypso has a strong presence in the Oriente province. (The islands of Trinidad and Tobago lie 10 km off the coast of Venezuela)
I heard some Afro-Venezuelan people speaking a kind of English here, like a patois, but not like the one in Panama and Costa Rica.
Right, patois. That comes from the blacks from Guyana.
So when do you begin to play music professionally?
I started with a guitar, and made a trio
we played romantic music, like the music of los Panchos, los Hi-Los, all the Latin and American music. I played in two trios, los Hambay, and later los Singers, which also had some success. Los Hambay had a cuatro and harps, it was Enrique, Hatencio, Gonzalo Pena and this humble servant
We played at the best restaurants and also on the Show de Renny. We recorded a 45 with RCA Victor, Marcianita, (sings) marcianita, da da da da
The other side was La Muchachita del Interior. (Girl from the countryside)
With los Singers we recorded a song from the United States, Raindrops. I did a version in Spanish and it was a hit here. It was on a four song 45 RPM record, another song was Pissi Pissi Bao Bao. Since I was little I heard a lot of North American music thanks to my brother Luis Pérez, who played trumpet at the Sans Souci club in Maracaibo.
What kind of music did los Singers play?
It was rock. But not hard, no, it was the rock of the era.
And the songs you recorded, were they your compositions, arrangements, lyrics?
Yes. Later I made a quintet called los Mikers.
And you were getting paid. Was your mother happy when you came home with a check?
Claro. Everyone was happy. I was into music, I did tours, to the interior, to Colombia.
Singing rock, rock en espanol. So you were among the first to do rock en espanol, long before Shakira and Juanes
Have you heard los Amigos Invisibles?
They are good. They are Venezuelan.
So, I went to study at the conservatory in Maracaibo. People think I am a Maracucho, but I only lived there for three years. I am from Oriente.
You moved to Maracaibo in what year?
1962. It was the era of Chubby Checker, Ray Charles. I had a group called los Bobos del Twist. But then, after that, I got into my salsa. In Maracaibo I made the group Ray Pérez y su Charanga los Dementes really, but first I called it Ray Pérez y su Charanga. This is 1965.
What music influenced you?
No, the influence came from when I was a boy, because
the influence we had was Billos (Caracas Boys), the old orquestas, Rafael Munozs orquesta
but they stayed with that rhythm, they didnt add anything to it or transform it at all, so we called it musica gallega (spanish music/corny music). Because they stayed like that. And we were changing. In Caracas, they liked salsa. Well, they liked guaracha. It wasnt called salsa, but its the same guaracha. What happened was we played it with a different feeling, different swing.
So I made my group, and we had a program on television called Fiesta con Ray Pérez y su Charanga on Canal 13, with Raul Bales Quintero.
Wow, just like that?
I was studying, I played clubs at night, and studied in the morning, sometimes I left the club at five in the morning to study at the conservatory at seven. I was auditing the classes, in there with six and seven year old kids to begin with
well after six months I was doing arrangements because at the same time I was taking classes in harmony and musical dictation.
What songs did you play? Covers or originals?
They were my songs Mango Maduro, Rompe el Coco, I put on my music. We debuted in the club Trinidad in 1965, and alternated with Ray Barretto that year. That was his first visit to Venezuela, he went right to Maracaibo.
Is it true that they wouldnt allow you to perform as los Dementes?
My music professor wouldnt allow us to play as los Dementes because he said musicians cant be classified as locos, so we called it Ray Pérez y su Charanga. There was a patrol ready to take us off the stage if we went on as los Dementes.
Bueno, when I went to Caracas to play there, I started the group as los Dementes and we recorded. Thats where Descarga Cuatricentenaria, Rompelo, all those songs are made. The first one was done with Prodansa. But the company went under, and sold the record to Velvet. On Velvet I recorded six Dementes LPs and two by los Kenya.
Did anyone who played with your Charanga continue with los Dementes in Caracas?
No. They came but they went back to Maracaibo and I had to look for new musicians here. I found Alfredo Padilla (timbales), Nene (Quintero, congas), Enrique Vasquez the bassist, Juan Diaz on trombone, Rulfo Garcia on trombone, and Perucho.
The great Perucho Torcat. How did you meet Perucho?
Well, he is from Oriente, from the same region as I am. He was from Sucre, I am from Anzoategui. So, Paisanos. He was playing with a group of students, and I said Perucho, why dont you learn a few songs, because really I was going to have this kid Pastor record the songs, Pastor Lopez. But I dont know what happened to Pastor, so I told Perucho and he learned those songs, and we recorded. I recorded him
when he sang, he tried to imitate Tito Rodriguez. And I said no, imitate me, and thats how he sang the songs.
The first LP was Alerta Mundo, 1967.
Llegaron los Dementes, los Crazy Men. We took a photo in the park
Where did the name Crazy Men come from?
some guys said I was crazy.
Thats where el Loco Ray comes from?
They said I was crazy, I went around inventing vainas (things), this kid is crazy.
They tell me I am crazy sometimes, too, traveling in Venezuela and Colombia looking for musicians from the late 60s. Actually, you have a line in one of your songs, Emae Emae, that says El malo en este mundo es ser diferente, y si tu eres cuerdo te dicen loco de mente (the bad in this world is to be different, and if you are sane, they call you crazy).
Thats how it is. Cuerdo is by the rules, correct. To us who have a way of doing things, an honest conduct, and we dont change from that, so they say the opposite about you. If I dont use drugs, they say the opposite, he must be a drug addict. But I have never used drugs.
When I listen to the music on that first LP, that hard trombone salsa, I hear the sounds of modernity, the big city in the 60s the horns are like cars and buses, trains
the timbal, the percussion are like machines, motors, tin tin tin
Well, it was a new era. The groups then were septets with tres, la Sonora matancera or orquestas like Billos, Colombian vallenato orquestas
so I used trombones, looking for a different timbre.
It wasnt that you were listening to Eddie Palmieri and his Perfecta?
No, no. Not yet. I heard Palmieri in Caracas, tu tu tu, ta ta, I liked that a lot. I had heard Mon Rivera and his trombones. It was that I liked the sound of the trombone because, among the instruments, the one that is most like a man is the trombone. The trumpet sound is more feminine. The trombone is more solid. But with los Kenya I did some arrangements for trumpet, which were forceful.
How did the people of Caracas react to the powerful sound of the trombones?
Ah bueno, the people went crazy. I played from Monday to Monday. I was on television on Monday, then I played dances Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Sunday during the day and sometimes at night. It was pura rumba in Caracas.
Alerta Mundo was a big hit how many records were sold?
In one week to sell 10,000 records was a phenomenon. But those have kept selling. All the records, I have the tapes, they are mine.
The version of Rompelo on the Lo Mejor de Ray Pérez CD sounds different from the one on Alerta Mundo.
That was another version we recorded in 1969. The first version was recorded in 1965, 1966.
You have various versions of a number of your songs, you did a jazzier version of los Dementes Mi Salsa Llego with los Calvos, Sonero Soy with both los Dementes and los Kenya, and Emae Emae with los Dementes in the 70s (as Golpes de Pecho)
so your music keeps evolving, like you keep reworking a theme you did one way once
Yes, thats right.
The music of Los Dementes, and the music of Sexteto Juventud, Federico y su Combo Latino was called music of the barrio. Why?
Bueno, because the high class people, the ones they call oligarchs now, the ones who had money, they danced to Billos, what we called musica gallega. The new music was of our generation, we gave the guaracha a different feeling.
And you lived in those barrios too.
Claro. I lived in el 23. Everywhere where the high people dont live, all the rest of Venezuela is a barrio, a big barrio.
What about your song No Salgas de tu Barrio (dont leave your barrio), which says si eres de la pastora, no te metes en el calvario (if you are from la pastora, dont go into el calvario).
Because they mess with you, the police, the people of the barrio (???). That was what it was like then, and its the same now. Those are all barrios of Caracas, like Brooklyn or the Bronx.
Looking at you, you look like an Italian guy from the Bronx.
(laughs) They just called me to go play there, and to go to Italy and France.
Wow, you are still playing then?
Claro, I play a lot in Mexico, where I have a little fame.
(Rays wife has come down from her office upstairs. His music is played everywhere in Mexico, she says.)
There were other groups playing salsa in Venezuela, Nelson y sus Estrellas had a lot success in Colombia, also Principe y su Bonche, I have a great LP by a group called Peter y sus Brothers sexteto
They were some guys from el 23. They still live there.
Really? Can you give me dates for this discography of los Dementes?
Alerta Mundo: Llegaron los Dementes and La Salsa Llego were 1966, Manifestacion en Salsa and Manicomio a la Locha! were 1967, in 1968 was Primer Aniversario, Soneros Somos and Los Dementes en el 68.
You recorded a lot in a few years!
Claro. In 1967 I recorded two productions of los Dementes and two of los Calvos.
How did you have time to compose all those songs, playing live almost every day?
Well, on Sundays I sat with my guitar, and wrote.
I have noticed that you give a lot of advice in your songs. Emae Emae says si quieres amigo mio llegar a viejo, no bonches todos los dias porque no es bueno, busca siempre de los ancianos un buen consejo, se sencillo Buena gente y sin complejos (friend of mine, if you want to live a long life, dont party every day because its not good, always look for a good word from your elders, be simple, good people, without complexes). Did you write those lyrics?
All of them. All the songs have a message. It says there to be simple, dont make problems.
Tell me about the costumes on your LP covers, because it looks like you were having a lot of fun.
Claro, mucho. I got those in the wardrobe department of Radio Caracas Television, Canal 8. We came out like that, so we continued it.
Who did that crazy laughter, ahahahahahahahaa!
Ah, that was Angel Pérez, the bongocero. He lived in Europe for a long time, but now he lives here again.
Is that the Dementes yell?
Yes. Los Kenyas is Kooi Kooi. Whenever I did a new group, something came out of it.
You were lucky to have such artistic freedom. Like most of los Calvos, mixing salsa and jazz and surf rock, was really experimental.
I did the song El Trigueno Cintura on Manifestacion en Salsa, its eight minutes long, it has a long jazz piano solo.
Thats an amazing song. The coro says Es mas salsa, que pescao, (Its more salsa than fish) which Piper Pimienta Diaz used to say with the Latin Brothers, I think Jimmy Sabater said it on one of his LPs. Did they hear it from your song?
Piper heard it from los Dementes LPs, they sold a lot in Colombia.
Do you know Fruko too? How do you view him as a musician?
Fruko is a friend of mine. He is one of the bravos.
Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz famously rocked the Feria in Cali in 1968. Did they also come to Caracas?
Yes, we alternated with them. That was on Canal 8. Palmieri also came, Ray Barretto, la Broadway. Pete Rodriguez, Joe Cuba. Los Corraleros de Majagual, Orlando y su combo from Colombia
that was an era, there was work, there was money in Caracas. We played in the plazas of the barrios all over Caracas, recorded live TV shows there
Another song from the period says que vengan los hippies
The hippies loved our music.
Caracas in la cuarentona (the cuatricentennial, 1967)
There you go. Thats from La Salsa Llego. I did another version of that song with el Negrito Calaven. Do you know him?
Ive never heard anything really like him before. Tell me about him.
His real name was Carlos Yanez, but he was called Calaven. He sang with such a rich feeling, they compared him to Miguelito Valdes, but it wasnt like that, he was a natural singer. This is a kid that sold mangos in the street, he liked to sing, he was from the barrio. Originally he was from Barlovento.
So I met him in el 23, we saw each other on weekends because I worked in the Remington factory. He liked to sing, I liked to play piano. We met and hung out on Saturdays, went to nightclubs and played, he sang. We did it for the love of music, not for money. Thats how our friendship began.
He was a really warm black man, and very flashy. He didnt have much formal education. When he hit it big, everyone was calling him, looking for him to sing here and there, he sang in the barrios, in the street, with any band that set up. After los Calvos, he sang with Federico.
He drank liquor, and liquor killed him. Even when the doctor forbade him from drinking, he couldnt stop. I tried to tell him, look
he died on May 28, 2003.
Who were the members of los Calvos?
El Pavo Frank on drums, Pedro Garcia on conga. He was a Cuban, he passed away. Miguel Silva on bass, Araujo and Lewis on trombone and trumpet. (Ray Pérez composer/arranger on piano)
Journalist Alfredo Churion called los Calvos one of the most innovative experiences in Venezuelan popular music. He quotes El Pavo Frank as telling you that the combination of calypso and salsa rhythms with jazz on los Calvos was like wearing a tuxedo with rope sandals. What was it like recording those two LPs?
Right. It was ahead of its time. We had fun in the studio with los Calvos, also with los Dementes. Even though Calaven had been the singer of Pedrozas orquesta, he had never recorded. Both Los Calvos LPs I did for RCA Victor. (Estos Son los Calvos and
Y Que Calvos! 1967)
Did you ever play live?
No. With los Kenya we played live on the show de medianoche, Canal 8.
Tell me about los Kenya. That LP Siempre Afro Latino is amazing.
Right, thats the first one, we called it El Kenya. We named it that for all the children dying of hunger in Kenya. That has the songs Te Pongo a Valer, Hoculele
Te Pongo a Valer, with Carlin Rodriguez and Calaven what a combination!
you liked it?
Its amazing. I cant categorize it. It has rock, salsa, funk, afro
That song has everything in it. It was a hit in Venezuela but in general that music was really ahead of its time, people were used to los Dementes, to the hard Latin beat.
Again, you seemed to have had total artistic freedom.
All the groups were my productions. So, I had to find a sound, a style for each group.
You make it sound like thats easy to do. What does Te Pongo a Valer mean?
Thats about a guy who puts his girlfriend to work so she can get self-esteem, and she doesnt recognize what hes done for her
it was my message to the musicians who said I had treated them unfairly, some of the musicians of los Dementes. So I gave it back to them, like the Jewish proverb that says who lives by the sword
All the songs have messages. There is another song we did called Pa la Cola (get in line), we did that for Federico, for Sexteto Juventud. Dimas sings on that one and he says hay que estudiar, hay que tocar y leer (you have to study, you have to read and play). Because Federico played guiro, he didnt read music. Olinto of Sexteto Juventud neither. I told them, but they didnt want to study.
Who were the musicians of los Kenya, and how many LPs did you record?
Thats Alberto Naranjo on drums, Luis Arias and Luis Lewis on trumpets, Miguel Silva on bass, Pedro Garcia Guapacha on congas, Cosa Buena on bongos. With los Kenya we I recorded four, two for Velvet and two for Discomoda.
Who was Larry Francia, the singer on Ra! Rai! con Ray Pérez y sus Kenya?
He was a mechanic, Edmundo was his name, but we called him Larry. He sang, and I recorded him on that one LP. I recorded other songs from that LP later, like Muchacho Barrigon.
And who sings on Asi Mueren los Valientes, El Alacran, Emae Emae
Wow. Playing piano and singing? Can you do that live?
Claro. La Paloma, the merengue, I sang that too. Adios Madeira.
A beautiful song. With trumpet.
You have some boogaloos, and in many of your songs the influence is there, the high hat, hand claps, the swing. One minute you are going in one direction, then poom, there is a swinging montuno bridge
Bueno, the boogaloo is the same son. The boogaloo was also from our era, we played it and lived it.
What year did you go to New York?
In 1969, on and off through 1971.
Why did you go?
I went to study, and also to get out from under the
women. I went to study with el maestro Nick Rodriguez, Panamanian. He gave me an exam, harmonizing, like that, but he said, No, man, you dont need to study, what you need to do is write.
Did you play in New York?
Claro. I played with Kako y sus All Stars, when I got up on the piano everyone got up to sing, Cheo Feliciano, Chivirico
Palmieri instead of playing piano took the timbal. Patato, Totico, Chombo Silva
this was on Second Avenue, Kakos after hours. Later we left at six for a musicians breakfast on Broadway. That was a rumba
I also played with Cortijo and Ismael Rivera, with Rudy Calzado.
They paid you?
Claro. I charged fifty dollars. I played on weekends. Saturday there was mass, they always played in the church. Salsa.
Salsa in the church?
Claro, you didnt know? The best parties were in the church. We played with la (Orquesta) Broadway, Zervigon called me. And the priests sold the aguardiente. These said that this is a house of God, and Gods children should enjoy themselves in the house of God.
That makes sense.
They had big stages. I played in a church in Connecticut also. And during the party they would announce tomorrow the mass is at such and such hour
Did you record in New York?
Yes, I recorded for Musicor. Al Santiago called me, I got up and recorded.
No, for other people. I did some arrangements for people too. Some songs for Orlando Contreras
I did some arrangements for Pete Rodriguez, and I gave him some of my songs which he later recorded. Dame Felicidad and Bossa Triste (from the LP Pete Rodriguez Now!, Tico, 1970). Vicentico Valdes recorded my song Donde la Tarde Muere, and Lola Flores recorded my song Muchacho Barrigon, which I still pays me royalties from Spain.
You returned to Caracas in 1971. Journalist Lil Rodriguez, author of Bailando en la Casa del Trompo, says that Venezuelan musicians in general didnt leave and move to New York, like many others who became stars in Latin America, because the local reception was so warm to the culture of salsa, the environment was so nourishing. The fact that your trip was so short is further evidence for her theory. Why did you go back?
I went and came back in 1969, then I went back to Nueva York and came back again in 1971
because, with the women there, I couldnt do it anymore. The women there are great but the women here
And the cold didnt bother you?
No, I like the cold. The cold opens your appetite, and you have to arrive bundled up, well dressed.
Perucho went with you both times?
Perucho was there with me, he worked with Ray Barretto.
There are two Los Dementes LPs that came out at that time, one is Estamos Caminando on Iglee, the band is like naked, coming out of a forest.
No, that wasnt me, when I left to go there, I left the name to the guys so they could keep working as los Dementes.
It has Catalina, Mi Salsa Llego, La Cenicienta
Those are mine, I play on those. Mi Perrita, Floro, those too. La Cenicienta, thats a song an Argentine friend of mine gave me, and I recorded it. Alfredo Padilla sings. But I never heard of that label.
What about Psiquiatria Popular SA and Yo Tengo un Guia by los Nuevos Dementes, both on Velvet? Perucho sings on Psiquiatria Popular.
Thats not mine, thats Cholo Ortiz on piano. Perucho came back and recorded that with them. They did that while I was in Nueva York.
Alfredo Padilla played timbales on those LPs.
Yes, but El Pavo Frank is the master. El Pavo Frank is the first drummer that played there up north, that, well, they had to take off their hats to him, Tito Puente, all those people
A genius. And another musician that returned to Venezuela.
When I was there, thats when I met Pacheco. He was promoting a 45, Sonero. He played it for me in his office. He said, What do you think, Ray, if I take this to Venezuela? I told him this is a stunner, a hit as soon as it gets there. And it was. That was the first record he hit with here. It was also a hit in Nueva York
thats what made me make my own label when I got back here.
Pyraphon. I did 50 productions, of various groups. Of Venezuelan music, third world music. The LP Ray Pérez y su Mae Mae came out of that. Also Lo Mejor de Ray Pérez, I recorded those in 1969 when I first came back, recorded my boleros, my sones for el Palacio de la Musica (Palacios records) El Tribilin, Adios Madeira, those were songs that were hits here, in Cali, everywhere. Later I did two LPs for Sergio Cecchis Melser label.
What about the LP Perucho y El Loco Ray on Palacios?
That was in 1971, we came back to record. Aqui Estoy de Nuevo (Palacios) was at the same time. I was always working. Perucho recorded an LP in Nueva York, backed by Ray Barrettos orquesta and Eddie Palmieris band, on Fonseca. Its called Homenaje a Perucho
En Nueva York.
What happened with Perucho? Was it drugs? There are so many stories, Fania conspiracy stories, it was drugs, Justo Betancourt killed him, Fania killed him
Bueno, Perucho, he was a healthy guy. He smoked a little marijuana, but wasnt into drugs. When he died
we had come back from Nueva York and were playing here, at the carnavales. I had my label, Pyraphon, and Perucho worked with me we did the LP Ellos Lo Hacen/They Do It, which has both of us on the cover. This is 1972. So Justo Betancourt came here and talked to Perucho, to take him with him to play with his orquesta. I said Perucho, OK, go. If you have work there, no problem. But I told him, Whatever you can do over there, we can do here. No, he said, you know, I want to be international. I told him that when our records are released here, you will be international.
He worked at the Corso the first time we went to Nueva York, but he came back. When he went with Justo, he had some problems there, he was always hanging around Justo
because as he was a singer, he didnt have anything to do during the day. He wasnt a mechanic or anything like that. I think he had a problem with Justos wife. You know how Cuban women are. She was jealous with her husband. I think she threw him out of the house. So he left the house, and one day I got the surprise, at midday. They called me collect, I accept
its Justo Betancourt, "Ray, come get Peruchos body."
Perucho died. Nelson Pinedo told me that what happened was this. They went to play in Boston, and it gets cold in Boston. It was springtime, when it gets real cold sometimes. When they got back from the show, Justo told Perucho to stay in his house. But because Perucho felt pena with Justo s wife, Perucho stayed down below. I guess there was a window open, and he felt cold, so he went into the car and closed the windows and turned on the car to run the heater. When they opened the car in the morning he was dead from monoxide inhalation. It was an accident. Nobody killed him, he died from inexperience. I imagine he came home tired from the show, from the dance
Wow. How old was he?
He was maybe thirty two, thirty three. A good singer. He danced incredibly, like El Gran Combo. He moved all over the stage he was a real showman.
(Ray plays the beautiful Canto a un Sonero, which he wrote for Perucho. The coro says Perucho se marcho, sin decirnos un adios (Perucho left us, without saying goodbye).
Your connection with Fania was made in New York?
I worked in the RCA building in Nueva York, the same building as Johnny Pacheco, Masucci, Tito Puente, Charlie Palmieri, they all had offices there. It was 55 Broadway, next to the Ed Sullivan theater, on the corner where all the musicians were.
When I came back to Venezuela for the second time, Palacios was representing Fania. I heard about Teo Hernandez, he was singing in el Cueva del Oso, which was a huge disco. He was a hit. I went to see him, and I liked his voice, so I recorded him. Later I got his brother to sing too. We recorded four LPs as los Dementes. Mi Deuda de Amor, Estamos en Guerra, Yo Soy el Propio Guaguanco and Chevere.
There have been quite a few Best of Ray Pérez compilations, and each one has different songs. Did you get paid for those compilations?
No, no, no, they dont pay me.
How about the Lo Mejor de Ray Pérez CD for sale on descarga.com? Do you get paid from that?
I have to call that guy.
Nobody calls you to pay you in this world, you have to call them.
Thats not right, if you hadnt written those songs, recorded them, they wouldnt have a business. You put food on their table.
(Ray plays one of his rare but well-regarded boleros. His wife, a retired professor of labor and collective bargaining law, approaches. He sings boleros beautifully, she says.)
Being a big star in Caracas, a singer too, in the sixties and seventies, there must have been a lot of women around
(Big smile) Claro que si.
Interviewing musicians years later, it seems like people release their compositions and dont pay them royalties, they come to their homes and steal their LPs and memorabilia, I like to think that during the time when they were stars, they lived it up, I mean
(Smiles) I enjoyed myself.
That makes me feel a little better.
Endnote: The CD Lo Mejor de Ray Pérez is available on descarga.com, and compilations of his best work with Los Dementes, Los Kenya and Los Calvos are slated for release in 2007. This article is dedicated to two greats of Venezuelan music journalism PHIDIAS DANILO ESCALONA and LIL RODRIGUEZ.
Ray Pérez Selected LP Discography
Los Dementes - (Alerta Mundo) Llegaron Los Locos/The Crazy Men on Prodanza (later Velvet) 1966
Los Dementes - La Salsa Llegó con los Dementes on Velvet 1967
Los Dementes - Manifestación en Salsa on Velvet 1967
Los Dementes - Manicomio a Locha! on Velvet 1967
Los Dementes - Primer Aniversario on Velvet 1968
Los Dementes - Soneros Somos on Velvet 1968
Los Dementes - Los Dementes en el 68 on Velvet 1968
Los Dementes - Estamos Caminando on Iglee (USA) 1970
Los Dementes - Psiquiatrico Popular on Velvet 1970
(Not rays music, perucho sings)
Los Nuevos Dementes - Yo tengo un Guia on Velvet 1971
(Not rays music, nor perucho)
Los Dementes - Vuelven los Dementes on Discomoda 1973
Los Dementes - Mi Deuda de Amor on Fania 1975
Los Dementes - Estamos en Guerra on Fania 1976
Los Dementes - Yo Soy el Propio Guaguanco on Fania 1977
Los Dementes - Chevere on Fania 1977
Los Dementes - De Locos... on disqueras unidas 1978
Los Dementes - Lindo Amanecer on LD Venezuela 1981
Los Dementes - El Dictador on Promus 1981
Los Dementes - Exitos de Los Dementes on Velvet 1981
Los Dementes - El Trigueño Cintura on Pyra Phon 1990s
(same as manifestacion)
Ray Pérez y los Dementes Pura Salsa.... on Discomoda 1996
Los Dementes - El Tiempo Pasa, Pero Mi Salsa Llego on Palacio 2005
Los Kenya El Kenya on Velvet 1968
Ray Pérez y sus Kenyas - Ra! Rai! on Velvet (later Pyraphone) 1968
Los Kenya - Ronda del Guaguancó on Discomoda 1969
Los Kenya - Los Kenya on Discomoda 1969
Los Kenya - Estamos en todo on Discomoda 1970
Ray Pérez y sus Kenya - Un Nuevo Dia on Pyraphon (Discomoda) 1972
Los Kenya, Ray Pérez - Siempre Afro Latino on Pyraphon 1990s
(same as El Kenya)
Los Calvos - Estos son los Calvos on RCA VICTOR 1967
Los Calvos - ...Y que Calvos! on RCA VICTOR 1968
Phidias Presenta a Ray Pérez y su Mae Mae 1969
Ray Pérez y Perucho Torcat They Do It on Pyraphon 1970
Ray Pérez y su Orquesta - Perucho y el Loco Ray on Palacios 1971
Ray Pérez y su Orquesta - Aqui Estoy de Nuevo on Palacios 1971
Ray Pérez y su Ritmo Piano Bar on Discomoda 1972
Ray Pérez y su Orquesta Muchacho Barrigon on West Side 1972
Ray Pérez - Yo Soy el Rey de la Salsa on Melser 1973
Ray Pérez con el Grupo Casabe on Columbia/CBS 1974
Ray Pérez y su Orquesta on Pyraphon 1990s
Lo Mejor de Ray Pérez on Melser (Discomoda) 1974
Lo Mejor de Ray Pérez on Ghetto 1973-4
Ray Pérez Centenario de Salsa Interpreta Ray Pérez on Sonoramico 1999
Ray Pérez Anabacoa on Sonoramico 2000
Ray Pérez Exitos de Ray Pérez on Sonoramico 2005
© Descarga.com and Roberto Ernesto Gyemant.